HomeGrown: Alcoa

From cars and cans to food foil, aluminum is a daily part of our lives especially in the Tennessee Valley.

"Alcoa really provides about a million dollars of payback to the community on a daily basis," said Ken McMillen, Alcoa Tennessee operations location manager.

And, the late Charles Martin Hall is to thank.

"The city of Alcoa began with the idea of an 18-year-old," said George Williams, Alcoa city center manager.

In 1886, Hall invented a revolutionary process that refined bauxite into aluminum.

"It lowered the price to produce aluminum," added McMillen. "At one time, aluminum cost more than gold."

Hall took his idea to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company and, at the turn of the 20th century, began eyeing East Tennessee.

"One of the main attractions was really the hydroelectric ability with the mountains and the water," said McMillen.

"The mayor of Maryville actually made a trip to Pittsburgh to recruit this new industry. And, a lot of locals weren't really high on bringing in all these northerners, especially with this big factory because we were a farming community," explained Williams.

During that time, Pittsburgh Reduction became the Aluminum Company of America and was sold on East Tennessee. In 1910, it began buying land and lots of it.

"The first land they bought was the land for the dams because they're going have to provide all this electricity."

There was no TVA yet, so Alcoa built a series of dams and purchased more than 3,000 acres in what was then North Maryville.

"Everybody just assumed that this new company was going to be located in what was then Maryville," said Williams.

And, in 1919, when the company went to incorporate the land, Maryville city leaders were caught off guard.

"They were going to incorporate their own town. It was not a happy time in the city of Maryville."

Alcoa's leaders were progressive and immediately began shaping the city.

"They planned it as they built it. And, they put in elements such as ratio of green space per person. There are cities now that don't do that."

Alcoa also recruited both white and black employees with housing and neighborhoods complete with churches, water and sewage facilities, even parks.

"They built a series of small communities around the plant and each community was self sustaining."

Perhaps most ground breaking, Alcoa offered equal education.

"In most places in the South, it was still prohibited to expand public funds to educate blacks. Alcoa did exactly the opposite. Not only did they recruit them, they used education as an economic development tool," said Williams.

In 1920, 1,700 whites and nearly 1,500 African Americans called the town home.

Alcoa opened its third plant in 1942 which rolled sheet aluminum, a hot commodity during World War II.

"It was used to make weapons. It was used to make planes. It was used in vehicles."

This was Alcoa's heyday- a record 12,000 workers.

In 1959, Coors debuted the aluminum can.

"You really saw in the late '70s aluminum start to eliminate steel cans from the market place and completely replace the steel packaging," said McMillen.

So, Tennessee Operations began focusing solely on cans and opened a new Continuous Cold Mill in 1987, becoming a major supplier to the can sheet market.

"That was a very good place for us to be."

Over the last decade though, there's been a decline. Cans have become thinner, using less aluminum and health conscious consumers are choosing bottled water over canned soda.

"We were in kind of a mode of reducing our workforce for a couple of years. We actually closed the smelter when we saw it wasn't profitable," said McMillen.

However, thanks to the automotive market, Alcoa is growing once again with a $275 million capital investment creating 200 new jobs by 2017.

"We expect to continue to grow in the automotive department, but we expect to be a long term supplier to can sheet as well."

As for that long standing Maryville, Alcoa rivalry? It's strictly on the gridiron.

"It's about two weeks out of 52 a year," said Williams. "Those other 50 weeks a year it's hard to tell who's who."

Leaders mended fences a long time ago.

"We were able to see how we're so much better together."

Alcoa, HomeGrown in Tennessee.

"Our motto really is advancing each generation," said McMillen. "We have employees that are 4th and 5th generation."


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